1b. the first appearance of Jesus to the twelve (minus one) in John 20:19-23.
On the second Sunday of Easter, Thomas draws the majority of homiletical energy and attention. That is unfortunate, since the preceding verses are really a climactic focus of John’s gospel. Therefore, we will spend a second post on these critical and tightly packed verses.
In her 2005 article, “Touching the Risen Jesus,” Sandra Schneiders suggests that these verses are the center of John’s resurrection/ascension story. She proposes that “the [post-resurrection] appearances in John are not primarily about Jesus’ postdeath experience but about his disciples’ experience of his return to them” (2005, page 18). In other words, the gospel writer wants us to focus on the responses of Mary Magdalene, the eleven disciples, and Thomas, in order to interpret our own responses to the glorified and risen Jesus among us.
Schneiders observes that in John, when we deal with Jesus pre-Easter, we deal with him in his mortal flesh. Post-Easter, we deal with Jesus in his “immortal” body. Our dealings with Jesus are not to be compared as better or worse. Instead, the problem is responding to the post-Easter Jesus with a pre-Easter worldview and expectations. We will see this problem worked out in four different ways in John 20 – Peter and the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene, the Eleven, and Thomas. In each case, it is important to bear in mind the pre-Easter/post-Easter distinction (and to remember that, of course, we come to Jesus always post-Easter).
Resurrection is the culminating “sign” in John’s gospel. In this gospel, signs always provoke a dual response. Some “believe”, and some don’t. Some don’t believe at first and only come to belief later, after further experience. The gospel is written to provoke the same crisis, the same point of discernment and decision for us as readers that it provoked for the first witnesses to the resurrection. For example, Mary Magdalene begins by seeing the empty tomb as nothing more than evidence of grave robbery. This could be where the conversation ends.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple actually enter the tomb for a look. The orderly arrangement of the burial cloths seems to rule out grave robbery. Peter does not respond well. The Beloved Disciple, according to Schneiders, “believed what Jesus had repeatedly said of his death…namely, that by it he would be glorified” (2005, page 24). The Beloved Disciples, on his first viewing, believes that Jesus has been glorified but does not understand that he has been raised from the dead. What the Beloved Disciple does not yet understand is that Jesus is both crucified and risen, both glorified and resurrected.
Schneiders notes that the Eleven will face the resurrected Lord Jesus in their midst. “Behind the Greek esthe eis to meson (literally, Jesus “stood into the midst” of the community) stands the Aramaic verb for ‘rise up’,” Schneiders writes, “which can refer either to standing up physically or rising from the dead” (2005, page 25). They now face both the empty tomb and the risen Jesus in their midst.
Jesus sends the disciples into their mission and equips them with the Holy Spirit for the task. He does this by breathing it “into” them. The Greek verb is specific in the directionality of the breathing. John’s gospel uses the same verb that the Septuagint uses to translate Genesis 2:7. In that verse, God breathes into the first human being the “breath of life.” Once again, we are invited to connect the original Creation and the New Creation.
One element of the baptismal rite in the Eastern Church instructs the priest to breathe into the face of the baptized. This is a conscious imitation of the encounter here in John 20. It’s an element that I wish now we included in our own practice. While we use the laying on of hands to remember our own endowment with the Spirit, this “breathing into” is such a profound physical reminder that baptism is the gift of New Life in Christ.
It is the Spirit that makes possible the faith which sees the crucified and resurrected Christ in and through the community. “What the Spirit does,” writes Craig Koester, “is disclose the presence of the risen and unseen Christ to believers” (page 73).
Schneiders refers to the passage as John’s version of the Great Commission. In this sending, Schneiders writes, “as the Father had poured forth the fullness of the Spirit on Jesus to identify and empower him as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, so Jesus now breathes into his disciples that same Holy Spirit to re-create them as the new Israel, the community of reconciliation, which replaces scapegoating violence with forgiveness” (2011, pages 24-25).
We should be clear to whom Jesus addresses these words. He appears to and speaks to “the disciples.” This is not limited to The Twelve or to any smaller fraction of that group. The writer of John’s gospel is able to identify The Twelve when that is an important item. But we should not assume that “the disciples” is limited to that group.
“’Disciple’ in John is an inclusive term,” Sandra Schneiders writes. “The community of the Fourth Gospel clearly includes Jews, Samaritans, and gentiles, women and men, known members of the Twelve and many who are not in that group, married and single people, itinerants and householders. In other words,” she concludes, “the great commission of the risen Jesus, in John, is given to the whole church, who will be, henceforth, Jesus’ real presence in the world” (2011, page 26).
The central part of Jesus’ commission to this inclusive community has to do with the healing and wholeness of forgiveness. Sandra Schneiders proposes that John 20:19-23 forms an inclusio with John 1:29, where John the Witness points to Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus has expelled the “Ruler of this world” and the power of sin to conquer. The disciples are called in this passage to carry out that mission of reconciliation, empowered by the life-giving Holy Spirit of Jesus (see Schneiders, 2011).
John 20:23 requires special attention here. “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” The first “forgive” is a completed past action that is translated as an “historical present.” The sense is, “Whenever you forgive the sins of anyone…” The second “forgive” is a continuing action in the present. Therefore, the action of forgiving has continuing impact in the lives of believers and the life of the community. So far, so good.
The second clause is more challenging. It is translated in most places as “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The problem is that the word for “sins” does not appear in the Greek text of that clause and must therefore be supplied by the translator. Translations reflect, perhaps, a mirroring of similar passages in Matthew’s gospel. Those passages, however, are applied directly to situations of church discipline – an ongoing theme in Matthew’s gospel.
John’s gospel has different concerns. A particular concern is that the community would be “one” and that no one would be “lost.” Sandra Schneiders proposes in a couple of places that the verse should be translated without “sins” in the second clauses since it’s not there in the text. “Assured of [Jesus’] identity and presence and enlivened by his Spirit,” she writes, “the community will forgive sins and hold fast in communion all those whom God will entrust to it…” (2005, page 30, my emphasis).
In other words, verse 23 is not about retaining “sins.” It is about retaining souls, about holding fast to the community in the face of challenge and persecution. “Theologically, and particularly in the context of John’s Gospel, it is hardly conceivable,” Schneiders argues, “that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus” (2011, page 28).
This fits much better with John’s overall theology. God did not send the Son into the cosmos to condemn the cosmos, we remember from chapter 3, but rather that the cosmos might be saved through him. The community is called, therefore, to function, Schneiders concludes, “as Jesus took away the sin of the world…and held fast all those the Father had given him” (2005, page 30). She expands this conclusion at the end of her 2011 address.
“Just as Jesus received his disciples from the Father and holds them fast in communion with himself despite their weakness and infidelity, so his church will draw into one through baptism those whom Jesus commits to it, and will maintain them in communion through ongoing mutual forgiveness of sins. In that community, feeding on the Lamb who has taken away the sin of the world and freed from all need for sacred violence, whether physical or spiritual, they will live and offer to the world the peace that the world cannot give” (2011, page 29).
Should the preacher spend time unpacking the nuances of Greek grammar to make the case for the alternative translation? No, clearly not. On the other hand, this text has been and can be used as a club of church discipline to exclude rather than embrace “sinners.” It is noted in many church constitutions under the congregational discipline heading, so this is no mere academic interest. I think the preacher should consider at least noting that Jesus’ commission to the church is to retain people rather than sins.
This means that “forgiving” is a way that Resurrection works out in the life of the disciple community. Forgiveness is the embodiment of Easter new life in our relationships with one another. God wants to extend that gift of life to all and to continue to extend that gift of life forever.
References and Resources
Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.
Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.
Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.